CNET Tech Voters' Guide 2012: Romney vs. Obama on the issues

You may know the candidates' views on taxes and foreign policy. But what they have to say about the Stop Online Piracy Act, WikiLeaks, and other tech topics might surprise you.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
9 min read
Photos courtesy of the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Technology topics can mark a rare bipartisan area of political agreement: Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama say they would make cybersecurity a priority, and both like to talk up government funding of basic research.

If you look a bit more closely, however, differences emerge. They're perhaps most marked over federal regulation, where the two major parties have long-standing disagreements, but also exist on topics like WikiLeaks, copyright legislation, and whether to levy a new tax on broadband providers.

Keep reading for CNET's 2012 Tech Voters' Guide, in which we highlight where the four candidates -- we've also included Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's nominee, and Jill Stein, the Green Party's nominee -- stand on some of the technology topics that you, our readers, have told us matter to you the most.

Stop Online Piracy Act

Silicon Valley firms and their users loathe the SOPA and Protect IP bills approximately as much as Hollywood adores them. An unprecedented public outcry in January involved more than 10 million Internet users and the home pages of Wikipedia, Google, and Craigslist going dark, which prompted the bills' Democratic and Republican sponsors to abruptly postpone their plans to move forward.

Romney is no fan of SOPA and Protect IP. During a January debate, he warned that the bills are "far too intrusive, far too expensive, far too threatening [to] the freedom of speech and movement of information across the Internet."

Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, went even further and blacked out his home page. So did Stein, the Green Party nominee. (SOPA and Protect IP target so-called rogue Web sites by allowing an order to be served on search engines and Internet service providers, making the suspected piractical site effectively vanish, which raises First Amendment concerns.)

Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said he would vote against SOPA if it headed to the House floor. Vice President Joe Biden, on the other hand, has been a staunch ally of Hollywood and the recording industry as a senator and once sent a letter (PDF) asking the Justice Department to prosecute individual "peer-to-peer" users who infringe copyrights.

Obama's problem -- and this may be one reason why Silicon Valley's ardor for the president has cooled since 2008 -- is that southern California is a more reliable source of Democratic Party funding than northern California. 

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer are Obama's top "bundlers," raising more than $4 million for his 2012 campaign, and some film and music moguls reportedly threatened to cut off funds if Obama distanced himself from the Hollywood-backed bills. Approximately three-fourths of the supporters of Protect IP were Democrats.

Instead of criticizing the bills and opposing them, as his rivals had, Obama tried to finesse his position in a Google+ hangout in January, instead saying that everyone should "come together and work with us" to enact legislation.

"Candidly, those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," Hollywood's top lobbyist, former Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, said on Fox News a few days after the White House raised questions about the effects of SOPA and Protect IP.

By April, the Obama administration appeared to have taken Dodd's warning to heart. A White House report echoed Hollywood's talking points by calling for new SOPA-like legislation, saying that "we believe that new legislative and non-legislative tools are needed to address offshore infringement."

Net neutrality

It's not exactly a hot-button topic at the moment -- especially because Verizon's lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission's rules is under way and unresolved -- but Romney has said he opposes Net neutrality regulations because they go too far.

In a response sent to a group called ScienceDebate, Romney said the FCC's regulation is a "'solution' in search of a problem." He added: "The government has now interjected itself in how networks will be constructed and managed, picked winners and losers in the marketplace, and determined how consumers will receive access to tomorrow's new applications and services."

Obama's position is precisely the opposite. As a candidate in 2007, he pledged Net neutrality regulations if elected, he reiterated this for CNET's 2008 Technology Voters' Guide, picked a Net neutrality backer as FCC chief, and threatened to veto a Republican effort last year to overturn the FCC's rules, which were adopted by a 3-2 party line vote.

Johnson's view is approximately the same as Romney's: "'Net Neutrality' leads to a government role in the Internet that can only lead to unwanted regulation." And the Green Party's platform says they want to "ensure Net neutrality."

The obstacle for Obama and his allies on the left: In April 2010, a federal appeals court unceremoniously slapped down the FCC's earlier attempt to impose Net neutrality penalties on Comcast after the company temporarily throttled some BitTorrent transfers. The same court is hearing Verizon's appeal this time around, too.


Legal immigrants founded innumerable technology companies including Google, Yahoo, Intel, eBay, and Sun. A Kauffman Foundation study by Vivek Wadhwa found that 52 percent of Silicon Valley startups were "immigrant-founded." A New York Times profile of Indian-born Sanjay Mavinkurve, a Google engineer who moved from the U.S. to Canada because of visa problems, highlighted what Silicon Valley has come to view as a broken system for legal immigration.

Romney's views appear to jibe with the technology industry's. During an August 2011 debate, he said that he likes legal immigration and that demand from businesses should determine visa limits. His Web site says: "America should keep the best and the brightest here in the United States. Every foreign student who obtains an advanced degree in math, science, or engineering at a U.S. university should be granted permanent residency."

Under the last four years of an Obama administration, on the other hand, technology companies have experienced increasing problems securing visas for their workers. Oracle's immigration program director told BusinessWeek over the summer that the company used to have almost no visa requests rejected -- and now 38 percent are.

Obtaining visas under the Obama administration has become problematic enough that a slew of tech companies, including Microsoft, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, Oracle, Intel, and traditional manufacturers, sent a letter to the president in March warning it has "become increasingly difficult for companies to procure visas to transfer their existing employees to the United States to continue work on products, services, and projects."

Labor unions, which are close political allies of of the Democratic Party and are crucial to the president's re-election bid, have been opposing visa liberalization. The AFL-CIO told the president it opposes allowing firms to transfer already-employed foreign workers, the focus of the tech companies' letter, because the practice "has a significant impact on U.S. workers."

Both Obama's Web site and the Democratic Party's 2012 platform are silent on H1-B visas. The Republican Party's platform calls for granting more of them.

Obama campaigned on a pledge to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, saying it would be a "top priority" and would happen "by the end of my first term as president." But that first year was marked by bruising battles over Obama's stimulus package and the law that's become known as Obamacare, and the president said last month that immigration reform might now happen in 2013.

In a response to a New York-based tech group last month, Obama mentioned that "we have a start-up visa program that's allowing foreign entrepreneurs to establish businesses in America." And in June, he announced a dramatic policy shift on illegal immigrants, deciding that they'll be protected from deportation in many circumstances. But that applies only to illegal immigrants, not the legal ones who have been crucial to Silicon Valley's success.

Johnson's Web site says he's in favor of a two-pronged approach: heightened border security combined with increased legal immigration. Stein's position is mixed, saying she'd "end the war on immigrants" but also "reduce flow of immigrants" by repealing NAFTA, which created new visas for Mexicans and Candians.

Antitrust regulation

It may seem like an obscure topic for most of us, but who wins today's election matters quite a bit to companies like Apple, Google, and even Facebook (and their employees) that have drawn allegations of antitrust violations.

There are few differences between Republican or Democratic presidential administrations when it comes to clear antitrust violations such as cartels. But antitrust law is surprisingly malleable when it comes to subjective topics like blocking mergers or targeting individual companies for alleged wrongdoing. In fuzzier cases, the partisan makeup of the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission is crucial.

"Republicans wouldn't think about bringing a case against Google," Robert Lande, a professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in antitrust law, told CNET last month. Presidential party affiliation "matters a lot" in deciding whether to penalize companies like Google, Intel, and Microsoft, he said.

Romney has signaled that he's far more willing to let competitors fight it out in the marketplace. Former Judge Robert Bork, a critic of aggressive antitrust actions and chairman of Romney's Justice Advisory Committee, has said there are "serious factual, logical, and economic flaws" in an antitrust case against Google. Charlie Black, another Romney adviser, recently slammed the FTC's "phony" investigation of the search company.

Obama, by comparison, is an unabashed antitrust enthusiast: In 2008 he accused (PDF) President George W. Bush of having the "weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century." The first action Obama's Justice Department antitrust chief, Christine Varney, took when starting her new job was to blame Bush for placing "too many hurdles" in the way of enforcement, and reversed (PDF) her Republican predecessor's policies.

Now Obama's choice to head the FTC, Jon Leibowitz, a Democrat and former aide to Democratic senators, says he'll decide by the end of this year whether to take on Google.

Johnson has signaled that he's no fan of aggressive antitrust enforcement. The Green Party's platform calls for "strong and effectively enforced antitrust laws and regulation."


Nobody would argue that the Obama administration has been lax in trying to imprison unapproved leakers. A June article in Mother Jones says this administration has stomped on "governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers," a dramatic shift from candidate Obama's reference to whistleblowing as "acts of courage and patriotism." The Obama campaign touted its record in a statement boasting that the president has "aggressively pursued and addressed national security leaks."

That brings us to the case of Bradley Manning, the Army soldier accused of being WikiLeaks' source for classified State Department dispatches, who has emerged as a cause celebre in free speech circles. Manning is facing a court martial set to begin in February 2013 on charges including allegations that he caused "to be published on the Internet intelligence belonging to the United States government."

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Meanwhile, Obama's Justice Department has been quietly assembling evidence against WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange. And Manning himself? "He broke the law," Obama said at a fundraiser in San Francisco last year. That unguarded statement prompted Manning's lawyers to argue that the prosecution was a "charade" because the commander-in-chief had already declared their client was guilty.

Initially, in December 2010, Romney said that if Manning was found guilty as charged, "he has committed an act of treason against his country." But by last summer, the former Massachusetts governor moderated his tone, telling a town hall meeting that "I don't think I should be commenting on specific legal action" against individuals. Romney added: "We should be going after people who commit crimes, not people who report crimes. That is a principle enshrined in our Constitution."

The third party candidates have taken a markedly different approach. In a debate last night, Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, said: "I do not see WikiLeaks as a threat -- I believe in transparency. WikiLeaks has not divulged any information that has resulted in harm to anyone. Politics has a way of obscuring the truth. We should let the truth be known."

And Stein, the Green Party candidate, said: "WikiLeaks to my knowledge has not been a threat to national security... We owe WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning a debt of gratitude for bringing transparency to our system."

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